Plumb Lines and Base Lines

I'll begin by thanking Henry for inviting me to participate in this discussion. I hope we can attract others to the conversations as well. Especially those who, for whatever reasons, have found the currently available maps and charts of poetic practice inadequate to their needs. (There are also those pure souls who find no need of maps.)

Henry has chosen the metaphor of the plumb line around which to organize this discussion. I have also been reading poet / blogger Seth Abramson's discussions of poetic taxonomies recently. In passing, Abramson uses the metaphor of the baseline in one of his discussions (thus the picture of the spirit level above), which seem to me the most lucid map-making I have encountered. (Abramson also offers an admirable model of reasonable discourse around a cluster of contentious issues.) What I have found salutary about Abramson's proposed taxonomy is that it avoids the binary division of Ron Silliman's School of Quietude versus Post-Avant boxing match, which is my its nature polemical rather than descriptive. (In any binary pair, one term will have a positive valence, the other a negative, though these can reverse depending upon context / perspective.)

Silliman's division of the poetic landscape has long troubled me at the level of personal practice. It is embarrassing to admit, but I have longed to be able to fit into a known aesthetic type & in addition my strong personal preference generally has been to identify with the most progressive trends in politics & arts. But I haven't been able, in my practice as a poet, to find much use for the Language poets & their progeny. I own a shelf full of books & it is not for lack of trying; rather, of trying & being rebuffed. There have been times over the last decade when I have simply not been able to find my way as a poet, long periods of silence. It would be absurd, obviously, to blame the SoQ / Post-Avant division. I am of course responsible for my own practice, but this particular binary division has made it difficult for me to find an aesthetic location, to chart my position on the map. I've accepted Henry's invitation to post here at least in part because I hope to be able to find common ground across the territorial boundaries of contemporary American poetry.


Matthew W. Schmeer said...

While I do like the three-tier taxonomy that Seth Abramson has devised for the same reason you point out — that binary systems automatically create positive and negative connotations - the problem with his system is best pointed out in a comment on that blog post by Joseph Hutchinson. Therein, Hutchinson points out that these divisions are based on theory and not experience, not practice.

What we are dealing with in this debate is about the poet's choices. But we are completely ignoring the choices of readers. Who reads experimental work? Only readers who are insiders, people who have a grounding in the basics of poetics and poetry and knows who is who and which journals tend to favor which "types" of poetry.

But those who read poetry (precious, blessed few) come to poetry not for the winks and nods and inside jokes and allusions. People do not casually read experimental poetry for the same reason they do not read Eliot's The Waste Land on a regular basis once they are done with school—it is too much work to make sense of the thing.

People come to poetry for what they can easily draw out of it. As poets, we hope they gather something about our views and lives and our take on the world, and we hope that the reader can somehow make a connection to what we have written, and can walk away with something other than a headache. Experimental poetry is good for creating techniques in which to create work—exerices, practices,etc.—but the adherence to the aesthetics of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and flarf alienate much of that work from "outsiders" of the particular camp.

It has gotten to the point where the debate is no longer about the aesthetic choices themselves but about the allegiances to the aesthetic camps. But no one is talking about the effects of aesthetics on the viability of the work in the marketplace. If we continue to think the audience of poetry is other poets, then we will continue to have the same tired arguments.

I'm not arguing that we need to pander to the audience, that everything can be Hallmark and Angelou and easily palatable. But I am arguing that aesthetic choices are artistic choices, choices which attempt to apply heightened levels of skill and poetic technique, and attempt to render the poetic object understandable by both the skilled reader and the untrained reader.

Which makes me think that perhaps what you and Henry are calling for is a return to the basic principles of the New Critics when examining and creatiing a poetic work, albeit not in terms of being as rigidly conservative in terms of the work's autonomy as a cultural artifact.

The call for recognition of the "Plumbline School" is a call to return to basics, a call to return to the poem as a thing of beauty, a crafted artifact of language that attempt to communicate a comprehensible message to the reader. And I can attach myself to that.

Joseph Duemer said...

Matthew, I agree with much of what you say, but let me offer some counterpoints, responses in search of a synthesis:

1) Joseph Hutchinson is a smart guy and I find his appeal to experience useful. I have a broad empirical streak myself. That said, I don't find that Abramson's "map" as I've been calling it is necessarily a theoretical construct. One of the things I have found appealing about Abramson's willingness to do the legwork, name the names of poets, and then create some working categories, is that his categories track my own experience as a writer and as a reader. Abramson himself asserts that his categories are not cages and that many poets work across the lines. Speaking for myself, I'd say I fall into Abramson's "pragmatics" category, but I'd also claim that no good poem is not to some extent about its own language and by extension language in general, which would edge me toward the "syntactics" mode of practice. In any case, I'm going to be working this out in more detail in future posts here.

2)I have always been suspicious of calls for poets to write so as to make a broader audience for poetry. My main reason is historical: I just don't think there ever was a golden age when good poetry was widely distributed throughout American culture. It's true, there was a time in the 19th century when verse was more widely consumed, but all you have to do is look at the reception of Whitman and Dickinson to gain some perspective on this.

3) Difficult poetry gets easier with time. I routinely teach The Waste Land to undergraduate science and engineering majors and many of them come to see its beauties.

4) My beef with the New Critics (as well as their progeny the New Formalists) is their political conservatism. What I have admired, on the other hand, about Language poetry & various other progressive and experimental movements is their (stated) political radicalism. The problem with these later poetries is, for me, aesthetic and psychological: I'm not ready to jettison as much of traditional poetic practice as most experimentalists.

Matthew said...

Hm. Good food for thought. Here, I attempt replies to your 1-4. Thanks for keeping the conversation going.

1) I would fall into the pragmatist camp, and I agree with your point about poems having their own syntactics arrangments. However, as I understand Abramson's taxonomy, "syntactic" poetry relies primarily on syntax play. But I would argue that syntax is a shared, mutually agreed-upon construct of language. Otherwise, all we can do is point hands, nod heads, and smile like fools. Poets who base work primarily on syntactical moves are automatically limiting those with whom they can share their work.

2) I think I was not clear; I am not calling for poets to write in a way that makes a broader audience for poetry. Solid poems will find their own audience. However, I am arguing that we need to think about what we want an audience to get out of a poem. If all we want the audience to do is think we are clever with how we can twist words to sound pretty or funny or make us seem smart, we're screwed from the start. And for the record, I think the 19th century produced more poetasters than poets.

3) I always thought The Waste Land was a mathematical construct. But, honestly, how many of those science and engineering majors are actually understanding the work and not merely memorizing what is said in lecture and discussion and parroting that back? Can you throw them Pound's Canto VII and have them make sense of it on their own without instructor guidance? I find that my students are masters at memorization and vomiting back things I've said in class, but fail miserably when challenged to make sense of something on their own.

4) I share the same beef. But if we can reject the New Critics' roots in Dixie Democrat politics and the attached racism, and infuse their practice with a new progressive radicalism, then we might be on to something. I'm just not comfortable with rejecting good ideas because I have issues with the originators' politics, especially when discussing matters not of life or death. I would expand, but I'm watching my youngest two kids right now and need to intervene in a hair-pulling fight.

Henry Gould said...

Hi Matthew,

I think the Chicago Critics, like RS Crane and Elder Olson, who came along just a little after the New Critics, made some useful refinements on the New Critical principles. I try to sketch some of that out over at the "Essays+Reviews" blog (http://hgessrev.blogspot.com).

According to the Chicago School, the NCs focused too narrowly poems as strictly verbal constructs. They argued that form in poetry is actually rooted in "plot" - the dramatic gesture or argument the poem makes. I feel this approach could open up new avenues in thinking about the relationship between poem & audience. The Chi School critique also underlines how the lineage of more recent "language-related" poetics has its roots - in part - in the New Critical stance (along with other formalist tendencies, like Russian Formalism).

Matthew W. Schmeer said...


Thanks for pointing me to your essay on the Chicago Critics. I hadn't plumbed the depths of your archive there, so hadn't seen it.

What struck me in that essay was your line near the end:

"Truth may be unitary; but the beautiful persuades or moves us toward truth not through logic or reasoning, but through something Plato called "charm" (the effect of a "fine" union of ethos and art)."

The question, then, is how does a poet achieve the beautiful during the writing process? It is one thing to perform a vivisection upon a poem; it is quite another to create the poem in the first place.

"The Plumbline School" as I understand it, is not a school of criticism, but a school of creative technique. We should, then, begin to devise a rather loose definition of what a Plumbline poem attempts to do within its lines.

In your latest post, you lay out a few suggestions, briefly summarized below.

Plumbline poetry:

- is multi-layered in cultural context

- attempts a "synthesis of situation" (my phrase) between the poem's language and the situation which the poem addresses; in short, we should think of the poem as a deliberate rhetorical act attempting to provoke at least one specific response

- is mediated (or resolved) by actual experience, be it physical or mental interaction with the world

- attempts to capture and evoke the momentary emotional investment of that experience without dipping into overt sentimentality (I'm throwing this one in after reading your poem "Memorial Day")

Am I parsing this correctly? This is by no means intended to be a "checklist" of features, but merely a beginning list of features.

Henry Gould said...


I think the 2 middle attributes in your list, above - "synthesis of situation", and the "mediation of actual experience" - are close to what I was trying to get at in earlier post, about the "proportion" between matter & manner.

I'd hesitate at this point, however, to define too narrowly what the "Plumbline School" is, or what a "plumbline poem" is. Yes, we would like to be an association of practicing poets - but a "school of creative technique" seems too limiting (we may be "plumbers", as Ron Silliman put it on his blog today - but this is not a Tech School, exactly).

What I mean is that I think this forum could encompass criticism, practice, theory. I tried to signal what I meant by "plumbline poetry" in the header, and in early posts here - but it's still vague, open, under construction. And I doubt whether there will ever be a standard "plumbline poem" - in fact, that would make me nervous. I like the idea of a wide diversity of poets, in association according to some general (& evolving) principles - & learning from each other.

By the way - if you feel you can in good conscience assent to the 3 stipulations of membership, Matthew (see post "How to be a BEEP") - send me an email. I will include you as a posting member to this blog.

Henry Gould said...

p.s. Sorry Matthew - I called you Michael!